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Public transport

by Adrian Humphris

The steam trams which thundered along city streets belching steam and soot and terrifying horses were a short-lived form of public transport in New Zealand. Over time electric trams, trains and buses were all competing forms of transport, but cars overtook them all. In the early 2000s New Zealand had one of the lowest rates of public transport use in the world.

Early transport options

Walking, riding and cycling

Public transport usually runs on fixed routes through towns or cities, charges set fares, and anyone can use it.

There was little need for public transport services in the first decades of European settlement in New Zealand. Towns were small in population and compact in size. As late as the 1880s, Auckland was limited to an area stretching about 2 kilometres from the waterfront and 4 kilometres east to west. Wellington was also compact, hemmed in by the town belt on its hills, and its harbour.

Most people walked to work and lived as close as possible to their workplaces, so residential and commercial land use was often mixed.

Cycling became an urban transport alternative in the 1880s, but horses were also used for personal transport.


Horse-drawn omnibuses provided a limited service into outlying areas. Services were generally operated by small private companies under regulation by local authorities. Timetables were geared towards the arrival and departure of inter-city coaches. Fares were too expensive for most people.

Horse and steam trams

Tramways set up

The Tramways Act 1872 was the first legislation introduced to allow for the establishment of horse or steam tramways. Both local authorities and private companies were able to run services.

Many early tramways were established by private companies linked to land-development companies, and were used to promote the sale of suburban sections on the outskirts of cities.

Steam trams

Steam trams were introduced to Wellington, Dunedin and Christchurch between 1878 and 1880. They remained in service in Christchurch until the tramway was electrified, but Wellington and Dunedin replaced them with horse trams after only a couple of years.

Steam trams were costly to run, polluting and noisy in busy congested streets. They were not suited to winding tracks or the continual stopping and starting required for an urban passenger service.

Steamed up about trams

When steam trams were introduced in Dunedin in 1879, cab and carriage drivers wanted them shut down. In 1880 a fire that destroyed almost all of the fleet – 34 cars, one engine and a wagon – was believed to have been deliberately lit. But the coke-burning steam trams were too dangerous and dirty to last long. They literally scared the horses, causing accidents, and covered pedestrians’ clothing and city buildings with ash. They stopped running in 1884, leaving the field to horses that had also been pulling tramcars since 1879.

Horse trams

Horse trams proved more successful as they were faster and could carry more passengers. Fares were lower because they cost less to run than steam trams. By the time Auckland established a service in 1884, horse trams were operating in the other three main centres and a number of other urban areas.

Trams encourage suburban development

Steam and horse trams provided a regular framework of public transport which people became accustomed to using. They also allowed the development of a suburban fringe to cities, for example in Wellington they led to the growth of the suburb of Newtown.

The capital expenditure and running costs of horse and steam tramways meant limited success for many operators. Auckland’s Tramway Company was insolvent by 1890 after running for only six years. In Wellington and Dunedin, ownership changed hands throughout the 1880s.

Cable cars

Cable tramways, used on steep inclines and powered by steam, were introduced in Dunedin in the early 1880s, and remained in use until the end of the 1950s when they were replaced by bus services.

The only other city to operate cable cars was Wellington, where a service was developed to the suburb of Kelburn in 1902. This was originally to provide access to residential sections being sold there. But more than a century later Wellington’s cable car is a feature of the city’s public transport system, as well as a popular tourist attraction.

Electric trams

Tram regulation

Electric tramways were developed in America in the late 1880s and rapidly spread worldwide. In 1894 a Tramways Act was passed to regulate the introduction of tramways in New Zealand.

The New Zealand Electric Tramways and Lighting Company of London offered to electrify the tramways in the four main centres. Auckland accepted the offer. Dunedin’s electric trams were also initially run by a private company. Christchurch and Wellington declined the offer, and it was only a year later that their respective city councils purchased the existing horse tramways and planned electrification.


Electrification of tramways began in the early 1900s. The first electric system to operate was in Auckland in 1902. This was followed by Dunedin (1903), Wellington (1904) and Christchurch (1905). By 1916 electric trains were also operating in Whanganui, Invercargill, Napier, Gisborne and New Plymouth.

Electric trams ushered in the era of affordable, rapid public transport, and fundamentally changed the shape of New Zealand cities. Their speed and greater carrying capacities allowed the growth of extensive suburban areas around cities.

Tram systems

There was much debate over which electric system to adopt for trams. The overhead trolley system was finally chosen. This meant ugly and potentially dangerous overhead wires, and an annoying hum. But the alternative system, with electric lines laid underground, would have been more expensive to build and operate.

End of trams

Trams were more expensive to operate than buses. Maintaining their overhead infrastructure became increasingly costly, particularly as maintenance was deferred during wartime when material shortages pushed up costs.

Gisborne replaced its tram service with buses in 1928. Napier followed suit after the 1931 earthquake. By the end of the 1950s all the tram services in New Zealand had been phased out except for those in Wellington, where the final journey did not take place until May 1964.

Buses became the dominant form of public transport in cities.


Trams and buses in tandem

In the early 2000s buses were the dominant form of public transport in New Zealand cities.

Motor bus services began in the first decade of the 20th century. In 1904 A. C. Thompson of Timaru imported the first bus, drove it to Christchurch, and sparked the creation of the Christchurch Motor Omnibus Company.

Buses were often introduced to operate in conjunction with tramways, to extend the reach of public transport services. It was cheaper to put on a bus service than to extend the tram line. Buses carried passengers from the end of tram lines into suburban areas. Known as feeder services, they were run in particular by local authorities. They also worked in with train services.

Buses take on trams

From the early 1920s the number of private bus companies increased significantly – despite requirements to obtain a licence to operate, and heavy regulation by local authorities. Auckland had 190 buses running by 1921, and by 1926 there were 11 private operators running 44 buses in Wellington.

Buses increasingly competed on the trams’ routes. Despite the 1926 Motor Omnibus Act’s strict regulations to prevent competition with tramways, private bus services had a significant impact on the patronage and profitability of many tram routes.

Wellington was a battleground for private bus companies seriously competing with the council’s tramways. The municipal tram route to Karori had to compete with a bus company that collected passengers from the Kelburn Cable Car terminus. The tramline was never profitable, and the competition led to the city council taking over the cable car and bus service in 1946.

Diesel buses

Diesel buses were introduced in the mid-1930s, and soon replaced the earlier petrol vehicles. The first diesel bus in New Zealand was imported by Wellington’s Bell Bus Company and put into service in 1934.


An alternative to petrol or diesel buses was the electric trolleybus. The first in New Zealand was introduced by the Wellington City Council in 1924, to run between Kaiwharawhara and Thorndon, but was discontinued in the early 1930s because of a lack of patronage. At this time, trolleybuses were introduced in Christchurch and Auckland. By the early 1950s trolleybuses were also running in Dunedin, New Plymouth, and once again in Wellington.

Thank you driver

Wellingtonians have a habit of thanking the driver as they get off a bus. A contributor to Poneke’s blog in 2008 caught a bus through town at lunchtime and reported, ‘On board was a mother with a little girl aged between two and three. As they got off in Lambton Quay, the little girl loudly and clearly called out “Thank you driver!”’

Advantages of trolleybuses

Trolleybuses initially had advantages over diesel buses. They were more manoeuvrable, more powerful, and had better traction. They were ideal for operating in hilly areas such as Wellington. As they were based on the same technology as tramways, maintenance staff did not need retraining, and existing tramway workshops could be retained. In Auckland trolleybuses could also use the existing tramways’ power supply infrastructure.

Disadvantages of trolleybuses

The advantages of trolleybuses decreased as diesel-bus technology improved, and the costs of maintaining trolleybus infrastructure increased. The use of diesel buses became the norm. By the late 1960s trolleybuses were only being used in Dunedin and Wellington, with Dunedin ending its service in 1982. Trolleybuses still operate in Wellington, largely due to strong public support because they are environmentally friendly – they have no gas emissions.


Almost all New Zealand railways began as suburban lines, which once operated in Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill, as well as in Auckland and Wellington – the only cities with suburban services in the early 21st century.

Wellington suburban trains

In 2016 Wellington had the highest suburban train use in New Zealand, on a per capita basis. The main commuter lines servicing the city were part of the wider intercity rail network:

  • the main Wairarapa line through Upper Hutt
  • the main trunk line as far as Waikanae
  • the Johnsonville line.

The Melling line also runs from Wellington, up the western side of the Hutt Valley to the Melling station.

Wellington–Hutt Valley trains

A train service from Wellington to the Hutt Valley was first introduced in 1874. Workers’ fares were introduced in 1897 to encourage commuters. The success of these led to New Zealand Railways introducing similar fares in other cities in 1899. To allow for increasing patronage a number of Wellington’s rail lines were double-tracked between 1905 and 1911.

In the mid-1950s the line from Wellington to Wairarapa was re-routed from the western side of the Hutt Valley to the eastern side, to provide a service to the state housing areas built there after the Second World War. The line on the western side remained in use but ended at Melling.

Steam trains were used until the mid-1950s, when electric units were introduced. New, improved electric units were imported from Hungary in 1981, and from South Korea in the early 2010s. Some diesel-hauled commuter trains have been used on lines from Masterton and Palmerston North.

Auckland suburban trains

The Auckland suburban network also depends largely on the two rail lines used for long-distance trains: the main trunk line to the south and the Helensville–Whangārei line to the north. The Eastern line heads out to Westfield via Glen Innes. There is also a branch line servicing Onehunga; this was closed in 1973, but reopened in 2010.

Rail rebounds


The gradual decline in rail commuter numbers in the last quarter of the 20th century suddenly reversed in the first decades of the 21st century. Auckland’s rail commuters rose from 3.2 million in 2002/3 to 13.9 million in 2014/15 – a year when Wellingtonians made around 12 million rail journeys.


There are no rail services to Takapuna and the North Shore because of the lack of rail provision on the Auckland Harbour Bridge, the main land link between the North Shore and the city.

The Auckland suburban lines were not electrified as they were in Wellington. Steam locomotives were still in use in the early-1960s, when they were replaced by diesel locomotives, and diesel units were not introduced until 1993.

In the early 21st century Auckland’s rail network was undergoing significant redevelopment following ongoing traffic congestion problems in the city. In 2003 the Britomart Transport Centre was opened, providing a central terminus for services. Track duplication improved the frequency and timing of trains. Significant improvements in infrastructure and services were undertaken in the 2010s. New Spanish-built electric units were introduced from 2014, helping boost Auckland's rail patronage above Wellington's.

South Island suburban trains

Christchurch’s main suburban service, from the city to Lyttelton, was withdrawn in 1972 after use had dwindled to a mere busload of passengers. Dunedin’s services ran to Port Chalmers and south to Mosgiel. Declining passenger numbers led to the service closing in December 1982. Workers’ trains and school trains formed the main suburban services between Bluff and Invercargill, but declining passenger numbers saw services closed in 1967.

Harbour ferries

New Zealand’s islands are surrounded by ocean and before roads were built transport by water was important. In the 19th century large Māori waka (canoes) which plied the waterways gave way to ferries.

Ferry services operated in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch in 2016, providing a faster and more direct alternative to trains or buses.

Auckland harbour ferries

Ferry services have operated in Auckland since the first days of European settlement. The services operating in 2016 linked the central city to Auckland’s North Shore, running to destinations including Devonport, Bayswater, Birkenhead and Stanley Bay. Ferries also ran to Beachlands, Hobsonville and Whangaparāoa, and to Rangitoto, Waiheke and Rākino islands. The Devonport service was the longest running, having operated since 1860.

Wellington harbour ferries

The first ferry service introduced in Wellington was from the central city to Days Bay in 1893. This service ceased operating in 1948 due to low patronage. In 1989 a new service was established, with additional stops at Matiu (Somes Island) and Petone.

A ferry service also operated from Miramar, Seatoun and Karaka Bay to the city from 1901. Competition from tramways saw the service discontinued in 1913, but in 2006 a service to Seatoun was resumed as part of the Days Bay service.

Lyttelton ferries

Christchurch has had a ferry service running across Lyttelton Harbour to Diamond Harbour since 1888. It was upgraded in 2001, with a new vessel reducing trip times and increasing passenger numbers.

Public transport funding

Historically public transport has been privately owned, or provided by local authorities, which paid for tramways and bus services with loans and rates. Railways have been primarily run and funded by the government.

Local authorities were concerned with providing a service for the public good, rather than maximising profits. Tramways were introduced as a means to open up suburban areas and reduce inner-city congestion. As a result large debts were incurred developing and running rail and tramway systems, and many ran at a loss.

Private cars hit public transport

By the 1950s private motor car ownership was having a significant impact on public transport patronage. Between 1950 and 1964 the number of cars on New Zealand roads tripled, and the number of passengers using municipal transport services fell from 198 million to 127 million trips a year. Most local authorities faced significant ongoing losses.

There was a high degree of regulation of passenger transport services with little competition among operators, and few incentives for innovation or establishing new routes or services.

Government subsidies introduced

A government committee of inquiry was convened in 1969. It issued the Carter report in 1970 recommending central government subsidization of services, and policies to encourage the patronage of public transport.

There were many arguments supporting government subsidization, focusing on the public good. Subsidies to encourage and provide public transport would:

  • relieve traffic congestion
  • have positive benefits for the environment
  • ensure services for those who could not afford private transport.

Transport subsidy framework

The Carter Report led to the establishment of the Urban Passenger Transport Council, a government body to administer subsidies. Funds were allocated on a regional basis. Regional councils were also able to raise rates to fund services.

Funding was initially split equally between rail and all other transport services (generally buses), but later the ratio changed to favour bus services, which became the dominant form of public transport. In the early 2000s funding also specifically targeted paratransit services (services supporting the disabled).

From 1989 funding was allocated by Transit New Zealand. In 1996 the Land Transport Management Act transferred this function to Transfund New Zealand.

Public transport deregulated

Three pieces of legislation deregulated public transport, opening up the transport industry – including subsidised urban services – to competition.

These 1989 Acts were:

  • the Local Government Reform Act, under which local authorities had to make transport companies into standalone businesses, or sell them. Regional councils decided what public transport services were required and companies would tender to provide them.
  • the Transport Services Licensing Act, which abolished the licensing of specific routes.
  • the Transit New Zealand Act, which established a requirement for services receiving public funding to be subject to competitive pricing.

Petrol tax

Almost half of the price New Zealanders paid for petrol in 2000 was made up of government taxes and levies. About a third of this revenue was spent on roads, the Accident Compensation Corporation and other transport-related expenditure. Taxes related to road transport made up about 5% of the taxes the government collected.

In 1992 a regional petrol tax was introduced to compensate for gradual reductions in the level of direct government spending, allowing regions to raise funds for roading work. It was discontinued in 1996.


In 1996 Transfund was established to separate the funding of transport services from the provision of roading services. Transit New Zealand had originally allocated transport funding, but its role changed to managing and operating the state highway system. In allocating resources, Transfund decides between the provision of public transport services and new roading.

Planning initiatives

In the early 2000s public transport planning initiatives were formalised in regional council documents, such as regional land transport strategies. These were aimed at increasing the number of public transport users and ensuring the effectiveness of funding. They promoted strategies such as increasing services, making it easier to get timetable information and providing better linkages between services.

Passenger trends

Mass patronage

Tramways provided the first mass-patronage public transport. Horse and steam trams created a riding culture – which led to high usage of electric trams.

Patronage peaks and falls

Patronage of trams peaked in 1944 and 1945, with 220 million trips made in each of those years. But this was the high point, and public transport patronage decreased dramatically from the end of the Second World War.

All major New Zealand cities had a significant drop-off in the number of people using public transport in the 1950s. Auckland was the most significant with a 42% decrease by 1960. Public transport use decreased nationally by 25% between 1958 and 1968.

Car power

The single biggest influence on public transport was the private motor car. The increase in car ownership correlated with dramatic decreases in public transport patronage. By the 1950s cars were becoming increasingly affordable. In the 1960s car ownership increased by 67%. Affordability was boosted from the late 1980s when a flood of second-hand vehicles began to be imported.

Low patronage

In 2001 New Zealand cities had one of the lowest rates of public transport use in the world, lower even than that of United States cities. Patronage has since risen.

In 2013, 4.2% of New Zealand workers commuted by bus and 1.6% by rail.

A 2007 study found that New Zealand was ranked 22nd of 28 countries in public transport usage. The study also found that young people were most concerned with fare prices, while older generations were more concerned with the frequency of services. Public transport use increased in response to the spike in world oil prices from early 2008, and continued to rise in the 2010s, despite lower oil prices.

Regional differences

Although nationally public transport use decreased over the late 20th century, regionally there were significant differences. Wellington, with its compact inner-city area and dormitory suburbs linked to the city by rail, has the highest public transport use per capita of any city or urban area in New Zealand. In 2013, 17% of Greater Wellington residents used public transport to travel to work, while only 8% of Aucklanders did, and only 3% of people in Canterbury.

Smooth ride


In 2008 Aucklanders showed how quickly they would jump on the bus if things were made smoother and speedier. There was a 4.4% rise in Auckland public transport patronage in the year to June 2008. But there was a more than 50% rise in the number travelling on the Northern Express – thanks to the $290 million ‘busway’ with special bus lanes that sped up the journey.


In order to manage transport problems, fast-growing Auckland has developed a strategy to increase residential density around town centres such as Glen Innes. Dubbed ‘areas of change’, these will have higher-density housing within walking distance of existing town centres and major transport nodes.

Patronage factors

Patronage is also influenced by the quality of the service and the vehicles used. Local and regional authorities provide and maintain much of the urban infrastructure required. Facilities such as bus shelters, interchanges or commuter car parks can make using services more appealing. Other initiatives such as bus-only lanes help improve timeliness and the reliability of services.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Adrian Humphris, 'Public transport', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 April 2024)

Story by Adrian Humphris, published 11 March 2010, reviewed & revised 11 March 2016